‘Walking Roots’: The industrial age reaches out to the hills

The impact of the industrial revolution on the towns and cities of the north of England is self-evident, with their mills and factories and rapidly expanding population. But the effect of those seismic changes stretched out to the remotest communities, even those high up in the Cumbrian fells. It even reached our tiny hamlet of High Ewebank. What had almost certainly been hitherto a single farmstead hunched on a windswept fellside grew into a bustling community, with some twenty homes, around eighty people and at least three inns. The reason? It sat at a strategic meeting point of packhorse trails on a key trans-Pennine supply route, a last resting and re-fuelling place before a long trek over inhospitable moorland.

Today High Ewebank consists of just four properties, one of which is a rebuilt barn serving as a holiday cottage. Of the other three, ours is only 120 years old and the second farmhouse, known as Lower House, is possibly only a few decades older. High Ewebank farmhouse, however, looks to be significantly older and may well date back to the time when the hamlet was a thriving packhorse trail ‘service area’. It could even have been one of the inns.

All the other dwellings from that age are long gone. Built perhaps mainly of wood and with their foundations robbed for the numerous dry-stone walls in the surrounding fields, it would require a great stroke of luck to find any archaeological evidence for them.

HighEwebankplateau2High Ewebank sits at nearly 400 metres (1400 ft) above sea level. Its existence is probably due to its siting on a large plateau in the hillside, around 200 metres across, on which it would have been possible to build a sizeable settlement, with room to spare for grazing and even the growing of plants and vegetables. Beyond the plateau the ground plunges 100 metres or more to the Belah beck, but there are springs from the hillside above – still used by the properties today – so a water supply was not a problem.

It is the altitude that gave High Ewebank its strategic importance as far as the packhorse trails were concerned. The hamlet sat at the start of a crossing of twelve miles or more over the moors towards Swaledale in a south easterly direction and a slightly shorter distance to Bowes over the Pennines to the east. Trails led across a ford over the Belah beck towards Kirkby Stephen and down the hill towards Brough, each around six or seven miles away. By stopping for the night at High Ewebank, carriers with a group of packhorses could start out at daybreak with the main slog up from the Eden Valley already behind them and all of daylight to reach the valleys on the other side of the fell.

Much of this longer distance haulage would have been to supply the busy lead mines on the hills above Swaledale. For all that they look peaceful and idyllic now, the Yorkshire Dales were once highly industrialised, the air polluted with the sulpherous fumes from the smelting mills at mine entrances. Hundreds of miles of shafts and tunnels reach deep into the fellsides. By creating a supply route into those industries the people of the Eden Valley and beyond were able to make a little profit from them.

There was also coal to be brought down from a seam at Tan Hill, halfway across the moors towards Reeth in Swaledale and the site now of ‘Britain’s highest inn’. Most of the geology in Swaledale and the Upper Eden Valley is limestone, interspersed with sandstone, created as our landmass was near the equator and alternating between sea bed and river delta. Every now and then, however, there is a thin seam of coal, from when the land rose enough out of the water to be populated with plants and forest. The coal from Tan Hill was not good enough quality to supply the industries to the south, so it was transported to the nearby towns and villages. One key route brought it down through High Ewebank to Kirkby Stephen and Brough.

The traffic was sufficient to cause the inhabitants of Stainmore to complain about the damage to the track from the hooves of ponies carrying heavy panniers of coal. Eventually they were granted to the right to charge a small fee for each animal. By all accounts the track was rough and prone to bogginess, but it did the job. Long after the Tan Hill mine closed, one of the gamekeeper’s sons living at our house, Tufton Lodge, in the first half of the 20th century and his father would collect coal from the stream bed at Kettle Pots, a spring in a deep cleft just off the road to Tan Hill, and bring it down the track to High Ewebank. He remembered there being a fine view as they trotted down the hill beside the pony.

Finding the actual route of that track today is hard, as the land above High Ewebank was planted with conifers in the 1970s and new roads through the plantation were built. The path from High Ewebank towards Kirkby Stephen is easier to trace as it follows a wall down to the ford at the Belah Beck and goes beyond the river along another wall to join an ancient road through the hamlet of Heggerscales towards Kirkby Stephen. Likewise the track to Brough most likely followed the modern road, perhaps with a few deviations.

As luck would have it, there is an aerial photographic record of the landscape before the plantation. During World War II the RAF began a reconnaissance programme taking aerial photographs of battleground areas from several thousand feet. To train for this procedure they undertook surveys of the English countryside, capturing a series of vertically taken photographs along set flight paths. Over several years they built up a photographic map of large areas the country. After the war the exercise was considered so valuable that it was continued, and of course aerial photography is now a major constituent of all modern map making.

HighEwebanktracksaerialIt is possible to explore the archive of these photographs at Historic England’s archive in Swindon. We went there a few years ago and were able to find views of High Ewebank from the 60s and 70s, both before and after the creation of the plantation. It’s a time-consuming process because while you are given a rough location and a sequence of photograph numbers, you have to piece together the precise location from modern maps and your own knowledge of the landscape. But in the end we were able to make some worthwhile deductions.

First, it was clear that most of the current forestry roads leading from High Ewebank towards Tan Hill were made from scratch when the plantation was planted. They did not, on the whole, overlay old tracks or paths. The paths and tracks left by the 60s were, in fact, quite faint and would not have made a decent basis for a new forestry road. However we did find some traces and a few which would fit with an old packhorse trail.

HighEwebankpackhorsetrailsThe most obvious was the one leading from High Ewebank towards Bowes. The start of this track from High Ewebank farmhouse is clear enough as the walls of the sheepfold outside the house respect the curve of the track as it rises up the hill. Here the track forms a small holloway, an indentation in the earth around 2 metres wide and a foot or so deep from the battering of thousands of hooves and feet. It goes through a gap in the drystone wall, with the entrance marked by substantial stones, (pictured right) and curves further to the left to disappear into the trees. From here the route can be traced quite easily on the aerial photography from the 1960s (shown above), passing through where the trees are now and emerging onto moorland through a gap in another drystone wall. Across this tract of moorland we have been able to find the track where it is cut into the hillside and marked here and there with stones. It makes its way steadily uphill to join the modern-day road.

The trail in the other direction, towards Tan Hill, is less easy to identify, except at the start. It forks away from the Bowes trail through a second gap in the wall and climbs quickly to where it cuts across a limestone escarpment (just visible top right in the picture above and also on the aerial shot). From here it must have made its way upwards towards the modern road to Tan Hill, but any trace on the 1960s photograph is hard to see. This has been open fell for centuries and tracks and paths disappear quite quickly into scrub, grass and, frequently, bog.

There is something very special about finding these old tracks once again and imagining them ringing with the clattering of hooves and the shouting of the carriers following their train of ponies. When the weather was fine a day crossing the moors must have pleasurable enough, but in the wind and rain it must have been a real hell, with the ever-present anxiety about losing one’s way. For the inhabitants of High Ewebank it must have seemed that this era of busy commerce would go on forever. But before too long it would all be brought to a shuddering halt.


More about the RAF aerial archive at historicengland.org.uk

2 Comments on “‘Walking Roots’: The industrial age reaches out to the hills

  1. Fantastic piece, really informative. Who writes this? Surely not you,Chris – where do you find the time??? 😮


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